In March I had the privilege of being invited to attend a WHO workshop event to plan an oral health manual for Africa. The event took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital – a sweaty, bustling city on the coast around 40 miles from the tropical island of Zanzibar.
It was a great event to be invited to and as well as presenting on the work that Bridge2Aid is doing in Tanzania, it was a great opportunity to meet with other people involved in oral health across the continent of Africa.
The workshop was opened by His Excellency President Kikwete of Tanzania. The President has a particular interest in oral health and indeed was one of the protagonists behind a side event at the United Nations Summit on Non Communicable Diseases in 2011, which led to the inclusion of oral health as a major focus area for prevention of non communicable diseases in the future. The delegates of the conference were invited to attend dinner with the President on one night of the event at the State House in Dar es Salaam.
This was a great opportunity for Bridge2Aid to be profiled at a high level in the country in which we started, and I was determined to try and get an invitation to the President for him to view one of our emergency dentistry training programmes later in the year.
After a very pleasant dinner and a couple of drinks with the other conference participants, I somehow managed to find a way to get a private meeting with the President, at which I was able to tell him about the work that we were doing, and invite him to visit Mwanza later in the year. It was one of those evenings where you pinch yourself the next day and have to ask yourself “did it really happen?”
I recently read an excellent blog post on the difference between people who succeed in getting others on board to support their cause, and those who don’t. It was simply this – ask.
Mulling over this simple advice, I came to five conclusions on things that I learned from getting to meet the President, which I believe are useful pointers as well.
1. Have a plan – at the beginning of the evening I set out with two objectives. One was to get the President to come to Mwanza to look at the programme, and the second one was to get a photograph with him. Both of these I managed to achieve largely because I set out with the intention to do so.
2. Seize the opportunity – if you don’t know what your plan is then you won’t be able to take the opportunity to achieve it when it does present itself. Fortunately, I knew a few people at the dinner who had links with some of the President’s staff and so when the opportunity to ask one of them for a private meeting came up, I was ready.
3. Be prepared – there is little point in having a plan, seizing the opportunity and and then falling flat on your face! Thankfully I have had lots of advice on this and my “elevator pitch” was well and truly ready and polished. The last thing you want to do when you get into this situation is to fluff your lines!
4. Execute well - once you have a plan, the opportunity and you know what you are going to say, you need to get relaxed, and also be confident. It’s amazing how many people go to pieces when they are faced with a famous or a powerful person. And yet I believe the way to engage with these kinds of people is simply to be yourself, know what it is you want to say, and be convincing. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, why should others?
5. Don’t blow the easy part – once the pitch is done, and you have your ‘Yes’, you mustn’t blow the easy part! And this is the point that we find ourselves at the moment. Thankfully the President accepted our invitation to come to Mwanza later in the year. Now having done all the hard work what we have to do is to make sure that he actually comes. And this involves lots of follow up, making sure that everything that his office needs in order for him to come is supplied, and that we follow up relentlessly.
The evening back in March was a great time, not only for me personally but also for us as an organisation. However, without being ready and knowing what the possibilities were from such a strategic evening, it could simply have passed us by as a nice memory to file away for the future.
One of the things that I’ve learned over the last few years is that being shy and waiting for the opportunity to come to you will get you nowhere. Of course it’s important to ask, but if you struggle with what that takes, and how to increase the chances of getting a ‘Yes’, then I hope that the above will prove useful to you.